Kohl—Laura Johnston Kohl, 72, on November 19, 2019, in San Marcos, Calif. Laura was born on October 22, 1947, in Washington, D.C., to an activist Washington Post columnist and single-parent mother. She was strongly affected by the assassinations of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and others. She attended college in Connecticut and worked to make a difference, being tear-gassed while peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. After a brief marriage, a visit to Woodstock, and a stint working with the Black Panthers, she joined her sister in California.
In 1970 she joined Peoples Temple and spent the next nine years working with them in California and Guyana. Away from Jonestown on the day that over 900 of her friends and family died, she spent the next 20 years recovering, living for ten years in Synanon, and rebuilding her life with her husband, Ron Kohl, and their young adopted son, Raul, during the next ten years: earning a bachelor’s in philosophy and psychology and a California teaching credential. She also found some peace by becoming a Quaker.
She was active in La Jolla (Calif.) Meeting for over 20 years, serving on many committees, especially those working for peace and social action or dealing with immigration issues. She encouraged Friends to create a banner for events such as the Martin Luther King Jr. and LGBTQ parades and had Quaker t-shirts printed. La Jolla Friends will deeply miss her insistence on their being active in the community. She was on the Southern California Quarterly Meeting Peace Committee for many years and was active in peace issues at Pacific Yearly Meeting. Friends remember her for her wide-open heart, optimism, passion for justice, and incredible energy.
On the Speakers’ Bureau of the Jonestown Institute, she was interviewed locally, nationally, and internationally for research papers and the media. In the annual Jonestown Report, she wrote many articles about the details of life in Peoples Temple and her survival. She made frequent presentations at universities, libraries, bookstores, conferences, and Internet radio. The Ben Modo Live television show interviewed her, and she appeared in several documentaries about Peoples Temple. In 2010, she published Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look. She spoke annually at the Communal Studies Association Conference, publishing scholarly work in their Communal Societies Journal and joining the board of directors in 2012.
The middle school where she taught nominated her for “Teacher of the Year,” and the National Association for Professional Women chose her as a “Woman of the Year” for 2011–12. In San Diego she belonged to groups such as the Democratic Party, the American Civil Liberties Union, and her teachers’ union, especially active in promoting racial understanding and justice for migrants. A member of Read Local San Diego and Writers and Publishers of San Diego, after retiring from full-time teaching, she traveled from Hawaii to New York and Seattle to Florida, speaking at universities about the 1960s and 1970s and Peoples Temple evolution, new religions, survival, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, psychology, cults, critical thinking, and writing. She taught Osher classes, spoke at Quaker meetings around the country, and served on the California Historical Society’s Peoples Temple Archives Advisory Committee. Her passing leaves a hole in the lives of her family, colleagues, and friends from all walks of life.
Laura struggled with debilitating cancer the last years of her life, but it didn’t stop her indomitable spirit. She remained active until her last days. Four days before her death, her husband, Ron, hosted a celebration of life at her home at her request. Over 130 people attended to say goodbye.